Why Is Flint Dealing With Developing World Problems?

By Sara Veltkamp, Sr. Associate, Minerva Strategies ̶

Flint, Michigan seems to have been misplaced on the global map.  While clearly within the confines of a Midwestern state of the wealthiest economy in the world, the situation of the city, slowly deteriorating since the 80s, is better suited to a humanitarian disaster zone, or a post-conflict state.

Here’s three reasons why:

  1. The water is not safe to drink.

In an attempt to save money, the city government decided to stop paying the city of Detroit for treated water from Lake Huron, opting instead to pump water from the Flint River.

That was two years ago.  Despite the foul smell and bad taste, the city told residents that the water was fine to drink.  When General Motors decided to stop using the water, in 2013, because it was too corrosive for industry, the government told the people that it was fine to drink.  However, recent research results from Virginia Tech found dangerously high levels of lead in the water, and as a result, in children.

Lead poisoning is dangerous, particularly to kids, as it can cause symptoms from developmental delay to fatigue. In adults, lead poisoning can lead to joint pain, reduced fertility, and miscarriage.  In addition to the lead poisoning, the water may also have led to the death of at least ten people due to the presence of legionella in the water; legionella is bacteria that leads to Legionnaire’s Disease – a severe and often fatal form of pneumonia.

Flint’s not alone in having undrinkable water. Clean water is also scarce in war-weary corners of Afghanistan, post-earthquake Haiti, and monsoon-ravaged Cambodia – all poverty-stricken countries coping with legacies of disaster and conflict. Should a city in the US be grappling with the same problems as the poorest parts of the developing world?

  1. The government does not protect people.

Bad governance and corruption are also problems that plague large swathes of the developing world. They collude to keep people poor and disenfranchised, and the situation is no different in Flint. First, the local government decided to shut off clean water flow from Detroit because of the expense – access to water is a basic human need, this isn’t the place to be cost cutting.  And they continued to charge the population for the lower quality water being pumped from the Flint River.

Second, the government continued to use contaminated water for years, despite industry leaders like General Motors complaining that it was too corrosive for industrial use.  It is clear that corrupt government officials covered up this information, though the blame, floating from local officials up to the Michigan governor, has yet to find a home.

  1. Extreme poverty and lack of opportunity

In addition to the current water crisis, Flint has a host of other problems, the likes of which most Americans do not experience. The mean income of Flint is around $25,000. While that is more than people who make $2/day in many parts of the developing world, it is meager compared to the $48,000 annual mean salary of Michiganders.

Flint’s financial problems are largely due to the automaker General Motors.  Plants closed, opened, shifted, or changed management, all the while destabilizing the jobs and lives of the people who depended on the giant for survival. According to US census information, 42 percent of people in Flint live below the poverty level, compared to 17 percent statewide.

Unemployment rates are on par with the state-level rates, but people in Flint work for less than their peers in other cities.  The only “positive” aspect of this poverty and lack of opportunity is that it is fairly universal within the city. No one is getting ahead, therefore in terms of relative success, people do not feel the lack as acutely.

To quote an article on Flint’s poverty on Mlive.com: “A lot of people are not even aware of how it affects them, because they haven’t been exposed to anything different,” said Dr. Recco S. Richardson, a clinical therapist for Hurley Mental Health in Flint and North Oakland Family Counseling in Clarkston. “If you don’t know you are short, you don’t think about being short until you are around tall people. You have a group of people in Flint that are not aware of the fallout or the detriment. They are just living day to day.”

But is ignorance bliss for the people of Flint?  Doubtful when they can’t pay rents or mortgages – evidenced by the nearly 5,000 abandoned homes that were demolished in the last few years in the Flint area.

We must do better than this.  

There is no reason that people should drink unsafe water and die of water-borne illnesses, anywhere.  But in the wealthiest country in the world, this is unforgivable.  Government, from the local to state to national level need to be held accountable for poisoning people through ignorance and cost-saving measures.  As for economic survival, we bail out the auto industry and the banks in a crisis, but what about the people that depend on those systems, like the people of Flint?


About The Author

Sara Veltkamp

Sara Veltkamp

Vice President

Sara lives in Chicago, Illinois and is Minerva's vice president. She takes a lead role in all aspects of Minerva Strategies’ smart communication strategies and implementation. She loves a challenge and is obsessed with learning new things, from how to use new platforms and tools for storytelling to languages like Amharic, French, or Farsi to mastering a difficult yoga pose. She applies this energy and curiosity to all clients’ communication challenges. Learn more about Sara.